Malta is really quite special. While small, you´re never short of beautiful places to explore and experience. Most travellers underestimate Malta´s charm and might typically book a long weekend thinking it’s all that´s needed to know what the island has to offer. On arrival, though, they learn the reality soon enough; while bus connections may be good, journey time on public transport can be painfully slow. It took me one and a half hours to reach Mdina from St. Julian’s by bus, a journey of around 8 km.
After the long ride from the airport to the Hilton, I realized that I wouldn’t be able to see much at all if I relied on public transport. As I don´t drive, hiring a car wasn’t an option although even if I did, I´d probably have got quite stressed by the chaotic traffic. The last thing you want during your holiday is to hire a car and get involved in an accident.
The best way to explore Malta is through a private tour, there’s no doubt about it. Whilst I was searching for the best tour to suit my needs, I stumbled on Karlito’s Way. Their website was quite inspiring so I contacted them for a tour around Gozo. It´s worth noting that their tours are tailor- made so if you want to see or do anything special all you have to do is tell them and they make it possible. They can take you swimming with tuna (did you know Malta is one of the few places in the world where you can do that?) or teach you to make bread (did you know how important bread is in Malta?) or you might even end up invited to a fisherman’s house for lunch!
Fast-forward to Saturday morning at 8:15. Lovely Therese was waiting for me in the hotel lobby. Before embarking the ferry to Gozo, we passed through Mellieha to pick up an adorable couple who could inspire every traveller, I think! Although I guessed they´d been retired for a while, they were really young at heart and always on the road! Don used to be a pilot for American Airlines and he laughed when he learned of my flying fear. He told me that the most dangerous part of it is the drive to the airport! Sue was the planner of the family, an outstanding researcher and full of energy. They´d travelled from Alaska, where they encountered polar bears and were en route to Romania for a Danube cruise followed by a trip to Antarctica. It was their third time there too! I´d love to still have the travel bug and be on the road when I reach their age, never losing that sense of excitement.
Gozo is like the little sister of Malta, smaller with an older lifestyle. While in Malta you´ll find modern buildings, traffic jams and a lively nightlife, Gozo is more about find peace and quiet. It remains an unspoilt oasis of stunning landscape, remote beaches, golden stone villages and churches that are larger than England’s cathedrals.
The most convenient way to get to Gozo is by ferry (I’ve heard there´s a sea plane too) and although they don’t really follow a timetable they do run until late at night. The crossing takes around 20 minutes and you can enjoy it from the panoramic deck. The ferry passes near Comino Island and you can spot the boats taking tourists to the famous Blue Lagoon, with its cyan coloured water. Comino´s population is made up of just four permanent residents and doubled as the set for a number of films including The Count of Monte Cristo, Troy and Swept Away.
Our first stop in Gozo was the village of Xewkija where we visited the Church of Saint John the Baptist, known locally as the Rotunda of Xewkija. The church was built small but as the village population grew (now the 4th largest in Gozo) so too did the need for a bigger church. The new church was built around the site of the original one so that the people could still go there to pray. When ready, the original church was demolished and rebuilt in an adjacent building under the new church’s belfry. It has since been transformed into a museum with the original sculptures and paintings. A local man goes there several times a day to ring the bells. The Rotonda is the largest church in Gozo and can be seen from all parts of the island.
Driving through Gozo´s villages I couldn’t help but notice the beautiful architecture of the farmhouses. The layout of a farmhouse is like a cube and rooms are connected by an outdoor staircase. Theresa told us that these days farmhouse owners have divided them into separate buildings, added pools into their gardens and transformed them into guesthouses.
The typical Gozo village is very picturesque and reminds me of traditional Arabic stories. Every house has a beautifully decorated balcony which looks like it´s been borrowed from Arabian Nights. Despite being a Saturday the streets were quiet and the island often looked deserted. It was just us and the tiny lizards.
Our next stop was the citadel of Gozo, The Cittadella, in Rabat (Victoria) – the island´s capital. It´s been recently renovated thanks to an EU project and hasn’t long been open to the public. When you enter the underground grain silos you can see that the walls are still wet, a sign of the recent work that took place.
The Cittadella dates all the way back to the Bronze Age, as archaeological remains prove. Being on top of a hill with full island views must have had strategic benefits as the Victoria area played an important part in Gozo´s history. I could only look at the remains and guess how the fortified village must have looked in the past. Therese pointed out the arches in the architecture and told us how in the past, because of the stone-on-stone way of construction, they were crucial elements in the structure of a house. Even today, old houses from Valletta still have arches over the doors.
The Cittadella has an old prison, now converted into a museum. People who commit crimes are judged in the Court of Justice which is next to the prison. Don’t worry, though, Gozo is a very safe place! The last major crime committed was years back when someone sneaked in from Malta during the night and stole some windows.
Before stopping for lunch we went to the village of Xaghra to explore the Ġgantija megalithic temple complex from the Neolithic period. Did you know that in Malta you can find the oldest man-made structures on Earth? The Ġgantija temples are older than the pyramids of Egypt and Stonehenge!
The temples themselves are in ruins and it’s hard to imagine how the clove shaped structure used to look thousands of years ago. Reading the cards and noticing little things like a hole in one of the doors made with a metal tool, when metal wasn’t discovered yet, gave me shivers. At the entrance to the temples is a museum where I found out more about the sculptures and also about lifestyle of our ancestors. I was astonished to find out that, for example, their diet was the same as ours: meat, milk, fresh vegetables and fruits. The sculptures showed that they used to wear clothes, not animals skins, women wore necklaces, waistbands and pleats. Isn’t it astonishing that archaeologists even found buttons? The people who built the megalithic temples of Malta might have been much more advanced than we thought.
Next to the Ġgantija temples is an old windmill, Ta’ Kola (Nicholas’ Windmill) that can be visited with the same ticket. Although small, I was able to learn how Maltese house interiors looked hundreds of years ago. The windmill was in use until the 1960’s when the last miller died. From the outside it may appear small, but don´t let that fool you. The inside is quite spacious and airy. It was really interesting to climb the circular stairs all the way up to the top of the tower and observe the windmill mechanism.
For lunch we went to Xlendi, a popular summer destination for the Maltese. This is where Therese introduced us to Maltese food. We sat at a restaurant right near the sea, overlooking the Xlendi Bay. The weather wasn’t as great as at the beginning of the day but it was still enjoyable to feel the salty Mediterranean breeze while having a glass of the local wine.
We started our lunch with the Gozian platter, a real medley of flavour and typical of the island: gbejniet tal-bzar (peppered mature cheese), fresh sheep’s cheese, galletti crackers, bigilla dip (broad beans, garlic and parsley), sundried and fresh tomatoes, olives and capers. It was accompanied by fresh baked bread with three dips: tomato paste, beans with parsley and a vegetable mix. Next we had ricotta-stuffed ravioli in tomato sauce and cheese ftira (a pizza look-a-like dish but with bread dough instead of the traditional Italian one). I still dream of that gbejniet tal-bzar and I would go back to Gozo just to have some more of it.
With full stomachs we headed back to the car and Therese drove us to the most scenic part of the island. We first stopped at the incredible Wied il-Ghasri Valley (The Honey Valley). We got there by following an off-road track and then went down what seemed to be an infinite number of steps. There were only a few people around and the view seemed perfect, exactly like in the photos. The only thing missing was the sun and the blue sky, but the scenery was still breathtaking. A few divers were preparing to explore the hidden small caves down the creek and I can only imagine the beauty they’d seen. A voice inside my head was screaming “jump in, jump in”. But then I realized there are still plenty of places to be seem and I didn’t have any change of clothes with me.
On our way to the final destination of the day, the Azure Window, we drove on top of the northern cliffs. I have to admit I was a little scared and didn’t have the courage to approach and sit on the edge for a photo. The cliffs are simply astonishing with almost vertical drops of what I estimated to be around 100 metres. The best part is that people actually fish from up there using nets and buckets.
The sun was preparing to set when we arrived at the Azure Window, probably the most famous place in Gozo. If you have seen The Game of Thrones, you might know this is where Drogo and Daenerys had their wedding – well, where the filming took place. Therese was telling us that back then nobody knew who the actors were nor that the series would become so popular.
The Azure Window is a limestone natural arch near the Dwejra Bay and was created after two sea caves collapsed. It is a magnificent structure and was the only place in our entire tour where we met quite a lot of other people. Right underneath the cliffs is a natural pool where you can swim and enjoy the views. You can also jump in a boat from Dwejra Bay and go through the rocks to the open sea and admire the structure from underneath. Therese pointed out how the cliffs have started to fall recently, bit by bit. Despite all the warning signs people still climb on top of the Azure window but soon the entire structure could collapse due to the erosion. I wondered whether it was really worth the risk just for a photo? I recall a similar structure in Peru which collapsed because of an earthquake years ago and how disappointed I was that I couldn’t see it anymore. I wonder what’s in the minds of all those people that ignore the signs and climb on top… (note: The Azure window has collapsed in the spring of 2017 🙁 )
Unfortunately the day had to end and we had to return to Malta. By the time Therese dropped me off at my hotel it was night already. I couldn’t believe how quickly the day passed, how many things I got to see and the new information I learned from Therese. I really recommend Karlito’s Way if you want a truly local experience of Malta or Gozo. They have amazing tours that can be customised to your liking and they can organise any local activity for you.
Disclaimer: Please note that I received the Gozo Tour complimentary. However, all comments and opinions in this article are my own.